Shifting Habits, Shifting Minds: Food Waste in the 21st Century

By Cory Hughes
Published: August 28, 2019 | Last updated: May 4, 2021 08:54:05
Key Takeaways

One of the biggest problems facing America in the 21st century is the vast amount of perfectly good food that finds its way into dumpsters each year. From the personal on up into the corporate levels, Cory Hughes investigates where all this food comes from, how it gets wasted, and what to do about it.

To understand how much food finds its way into the dumpster, visualize for a second the volume of a sports arena at full capacity. An entire venue with 90,000 seats is the amount that gets discarded every day in the United States. As much as 40% of the food meant for sale ends up being tossed out. Personal consumption habits, overproduction, and aesthetic perceptions all contribute to a problem that, so far, has no end in sight.


With excessive demand and wealth comes excessive waste. As one of the richest nation in the world, America faces unique challenges in how to deal with unconsumed packaged foods and produce. The level of the economic and environmental impact that food waste has is not sustainable for the long haul, but fortunately, there are solutions.

Is There Enough Food in the World to Feed the Entire Population?

According to a report released by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data, around 63 million tons of food find their way into landfills each year. From that amount, around 10 tons are caused by overproduction. The remainder is from either commercial or personal waste.


The sheer amount of food waste is staggering, but there are other unintended consequences. Food waste can be considered a byproduct of inefficient chains of distribution because we have more than sufficient quantities of food to feed the entire world. And yet, half of the world lives in a state of food insecurity. Economics and the will of those who control the supply are what prevent distribution chains from reaching everyone.

Stay Mindful of Personal Waste

Personal food waste accounts for the largest segment of total waste. This is fundamentally due to inefficient purchasing and consuming habits. More often than not, there is little to no planning before an individual heads out to the grocery store. Once produce and other foods make their way into the home, poor preparation or storage leads to waste.

It's not uncommon for families to cook large amounts of food, only for the leftovers to go uneaten.


Another factor that leads to perfectly good food getting thrown away is a misunderstanding of expiration dates. By adjusting our personal consumption habits, we can all start to reduce the excess waste currently being felt on a global level.

Tackle Waste on a Corporate Level

Stores tend to buy excessive amounts of product, hoping to meet non-existent consumer demand. The companies that run grocery stores look at food like any other product. If they feel it has no commercial value --whether due to irregular shape or expiration date-- they dispose of it. Sure enough, the infinite growth model plays a contributing role in the global food waste epidemic.


Faced with surpluses of food, grocery stores simply choose to dispose of them in most cases. When asked, they cite fears of being sued as a result of someone getting sick from expired food.

Coming to understand expiration dates is vital in tackling the food waste epidemic. There are numerous different types of expiration dates and most consumers don’t really understand what they are or what they mean.

Just because a stamp on a can of tuna says it expires tomorrow doesn't mean it will go bad overnight.

People often see a date and simply assume the food is spoiled. In reality, this incorrect assumption is contributing to the problem.

Accept Agriculture Overproduction

Overproduction deserves a book unto itself. Though it only accounts for around 15% of total food waste, the impact of overproduction on the environment and food prices in certain markets make it a problem that has grown out of control. There are many reasons why farmers participate in overproduction and, as far as the consumer is concerned, aesthetics is a big one.

Farmers are forced to overproduce to accommodate the uninformed populace who only want to buy produce that looks “good” as opposed to “bad”. To some degree, we have been conditioned to only buy the best-looking fruits and vegetables, and packaged goods with lengthy expiration dates. As much as 40% of all produce grown is disposed because it doesn’t meet our visual standards of culinary beauty. However, misshapen produce has no less nutritional value than their classical counterparts.

In an attempt to curb this problem, interest in the marketing of misshapen produce has surged in recent years, but the practice is not yet widespread.

What Is Food Waste Costing You?

After conducting a number of studies on food loss and waste reduction, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) laid out the financial, environmental, and health-related costs of food waste in its "Global Inititiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction" guide.

The numbers across the board are so high that it is truly challenging to take in. Over $1 trillion of food is wasted, totaling 30% of the global food supply. Besides the retail losses, the FAO determined that an additional $700 billion is used for natural resources, with water constituting around $172 billion. Other costs include $42 billion in deforestation and a devastating $429 billion in losses related to greenhouse gases. The healthcare-related costs total more than $150 billion.

The FAO numbers have a sinister implication. If the $150 billion in healthcare costs, which is believed to be pesticide-related, represents the food that is wasted, the cost of pesticide-related illness totals over $500 billion for the global food supply. We have not yet even begun to touch upon the cost of lands actively destroyed by chemical fertilizer run-off and clean water systems that become contaminated. The US accounts for a total of around 31% of these figures, making it the primary offender. Fortunately, these numbers haven’t gone unnoticed.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture (EPA) announced a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030. The numbers they compiled in 2010 were equally as disturbing as those compiled by the FAO.

The EPA determined that each American is responsible for approximately 218.9 pounds of food waste.

This is personal waste, aside from the already overwhelming corporate and overproduction numbers. They hope to cut this number down to 109.4 pounds, and all other waste, by 66 billion pounds per year. These goals may seem ambitious and would require change on the part of everyone. However, as the need to preserve environmental and economic interests grows, it is a goal that is becoming more and more essential.

What Can You Do?

But how can these goals be achieved and the valuable resources we throw to the wind every year be preserved? The overarching solution is simple: change our habits, from the personal to the corporate levels, and create a culture of sustainability. It is much easier said than done and requires a conscious shift in how we think about and approach our consumption habits and production methods.

Overcoming the ugly food perception problem is paramount. Educating the public, incentivizing farmers to keep misshapen produce and ending overproduction is an undeniable necessity. Exploring practices such as vertical farming can help conserve land and water usage, while implementing permaculture techniques to mimic more natural environments can alleviate some of the environmental impacts. The key to these methods relies upon reducing production.

On a personal level, we can all do more. Look to curb excess purchasing, donate leftovers, learn about expiration dates, and ensure proper storage techniques. It’s important to remember that it’s possible to grow your own food. Indoor gardening has never been easier. These might seem like small and insignificant steps, but if everyone participated in working toward this new sustainable food culture, the goal of cutting waste in half could be achieved in half the projected time.

Read next: The 10 Biggest and Best Vertical Farms


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Written by Cory Hughes | Commercial Grower

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Cory Hughes is a former police officer turned full-time commercial grower in Denver, Colorado.

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